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Changing History: From Poison Gas to Corn Ethanol

by afew Sat Oct 27th, 2007 at 11:15:41 AM EST

This is not my diary, it's JohnnyRook's. In the act of front-paging it, I brilliantly succeeded in hitting "Delete". I have managed to retrieve the text, but I have dang well lost the comments (bang bang bullet in head). My apologies to JohnnyRook and the commenters.
afew (dead).

As Michael Pollan points out in his fine book The Omnivore's Dilemma A Natural History of Four Meals not many people know who Fritz Haber was.   That is probably because of the German chemist's prominent role in designing armaments for the Kaiser's army in World War I. Haber's invention of synthetic nitrate allowed the German munitions industry to continue to turn out bombs even after the allies had cut off their access to natural Chilean nitrate. Haber then went on to develop chlorine and other poisonous gases for the German army. On April 25, 1915 he personally oversaw the first use of poison gases on the battlefield.

Crossposted on DailyKos

Fritz Haber was awarded the 1918 Nobel prize for chemistry for his work on the fixation of nitrogen from the air, which made possible the synthesis of ammonia from it's component elements, hydrogen and nitrogen. The discovery that had kept German bombs rolling off the assembly line also made possible the creation of artificial fertilizers. It is artificial fertilizer not bomb making that is the most enduringly significant aspect of Haber's work. The consequences were enormous, making possible the 20th century's Green Revolution in agriculture without which the ensuing population explosion could not have happened. Human engineered nitrogen fixation removed the limit on human population that dependence on natural nitrogen fixation had imposed. According to Vaclav Smil, the author of a study of the Haber-Bosch process (Carl Bosch commercialized Haber's  invention), without nitrogen fertilizers the planet's population could be no more than half of what it is today.

From our early 21st century vantage point where overpopulation and its concomitant bevy of environmental problems are clearly visible we may be forgiven for having second thoughts about the benefits of Fritz Haber's history-altering invention.  

The story doesn't end here though. After the end of the Second World War the United States government was faced with the question of what to do with it's now-surplus munitions production capability. If you didn't need synthetic ammonia for bombs, what else could you do with it?  After some debate, it was decided to put it to work on the country's farms. (Pollan page 41) This decision changed farming radically.

On the American farm ammonium nitrate met it's soul mate: corn.  Corn grew so successfully with synthetic nitrogen fertilizer that most farmers abandoned other crops and crop rotation to grow only corn. But, what do you do with all that corn? Lots of things. According to Pollan, (page 19) out of the roughly 45,000 items in an American supermarket one fourth of them contain corn in one form or another.

Unfortunately, for farmers this cornucopia of corn became a problem (Not to mention the deleterious effect it's had on the average American's health). The farmers found, as overproduction caused corn prices to drop, that the only way they could possibly make money was to constantly plant more corn in a doomed effort to stay ahead of the downward price spiral.

Then along came rising gas prices and energy dependence and then global warming too and things started to look up for corn farmers and their communities because, wow, now they could make ethanol, save the world and turn a tidy profit in the process. At least that's what the farm lobby told Congress. And Congress agreed passing legislation in 2000 requiring the country to produce 7.5 billion gallons of biofuels by 2012.  This year, the United States will produce around 6.5 billion gallons of ethanol (and a much smaller amount of biodiesel) and President Bush has called for annual production of 35 billion gallons by 2017. The growth in ethanol production has pushed corn prices up to their highest level in years.

The  problem is that making corn from ethanol is comparatively inefficient and environmentally unsound.

"We can create ethanol in an incredibly dumb way," says Nathanael Greene, a senior researcher with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "But there are many pathways that get us a future full of wildlife, soil carbon, and across-the-board benefits." The key, Greene and others say, is to figure out how to make fuel from plant material other than food: cornstalks, prairie grasses, fast-growing trees, or even algae. That approach, combined with more efficient vehicles and communities, says Greene, "could eliminate our demand for gasoline by 2050."

There are a number of specific areas of concern with corn as a biofuel including:

1) Its relatively low energy output per unit of energy input.

The relative suitability of a crop for ethanol production can be determined by calculating it's net energy balance (NEB) defined as "the energy content of the biofuel divided by the total fossil energy used throughout the full life cycle of the production of the feedstock [corn, soybeans, sugar cane, etc.], its conversion to biofuel and transport" (see Water Implications of Biofuels Production in the United States).

In other words, what's the ratio of fossil fuel energy input to biofuel energy output?

The NEB for corn is 1:1.3 at best (Some experts think it's actually negative: 1:<1). That is, for every gallon of fossil fuel input one gets a biofuel output of no more than 1.3 gallons. Compare that with soy whose NEB is 1:1.8-2.0 or switchgrass, a cellulosic feedstock, whose NEB is anywhere from 1:4 to 1:15. Brazil's very successful sugar cane ethanol has a NEB of 1:8.

Among the various feedstocks then, corn has the lowest NEB producing no more than 1.3 units of biofuel energy for every 1 unit of fossil fuel input.  

(For more information check out this interactive module from National Geographic comparing the energy from various biofuel crops. Be sure to click at the bottom of the screen to hear the discussion of the pros and cons of each feedstock.)

2) The high level of fertilizers and pesticides required to grow corn and the consequent high levels of water pollution that result.

According to a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS): "Groundwater quality is directly impacted by the high levels of nitrate and nitrite--the products of nitrogen fertilizers--that leach into the groundwater from corn fields," The report goes on to point out that:

Per unit of energy gained, corn ethanol and soybean biodiesel have dramatically different impacts on water quality (Hill et al., 2006). When fertilizer and pesticide application rates (Figure 3-1) are scaled relative to the NEB values of these two biofuels, they are seen to differ dramatically (Figure 3-5). Per unit of energy gained, biodiesel requires just 2 percent of the N[itrogen] and 8 percent of the P[hosphorus] needed for corn ethanol. Pesticide use per NEB differs similarly. Low input high-diversity prairie biomass and other native species would also compare favorably relative to corn using this metric. [my emphasis]

The health consequences of excessive levels of nitrate+nitrite in drinking water are severe. The NAS report cited above points out that the US EPA recommends treatment of drinking water with nitrate+nitrite levels over 10 milligrams per liter in order to avoid, among other negative health effects, Blue Baby Syndrome, a malady in infants in which ingested nitrite binds with hemoglobin to impede the transport of oxygen.

In areas of intensive agriculture in the US levels of nitrate+nitrite of over 4 milligrams per liter are already common and recent increases in the acreage devoted to corn cultivation have already lead to increased quantities of Nitrogen and Phosphorus in surface and groundwaters. Additional increases in the area devoted to corn cultivation can only exacerbate the problem.

Besides pollution of ground and surface water nitrogen fertilizer runoff causes erosion and can severely damage coastal waters. A 10,000 square kilometer dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is the acknowledged result of nitrogen runoff into the Mississippi River system. When dead zones form most fish and other marine species die off from hypoxia (lack of oxygen).

The NAS report concludes:

All else being equal, the conversion of other crops or non-crop plants to corn will likely lead to much higher application rates of nitrogen (Figure 3-1). Given the correlation of nitrogen application rates to stream concentrations of total nitrogen, and of the latter to the increase in hypoxia in the nation's waterbodies, the potential for additional corn-based ethanol production to increase the extent of these hypoxic regions is considerable.

3) Overtaxing water systems. This is a concern regardless of the feedstock being cultivated.

Whether conversion of existing crops to biofuel production increases water consumption depends on the crops involved and the area of the country where they are grown. The expansion of any feedstock cultivation into drier areas in the West where there previously has been no irrigation obviously has the potential to strain existing water systems.  

Expansion in areas where agriculture is already widespread will further tax already degraded water systems.  Due to excessive groundwater pumping, the water table in the Ogallala aquifer has already dropped by over 100 feet.  In other areas such as the Klamath River Basin in Oregon and California intense conflict already exists as farmers square off with environmentalists over water allocations.

According to a recent report from the International Water Management Institute (IWMA), water is a even bigger limiting factor in biofuel production in many other countries. China plans to increase ethanol production, using corn, from 3.6 billion liters to 17.7 billion liters by 2030.  Given that 75% of Chinese grain crops are irrigated and that it's water resources are already overtaxed it is unlikely that China can meet this target without reducing grain production for food, the demand for which continues to grow.  In that case China will be forced to import more grain which is in direct opposition to its goal of reducing its import dependency.  Moreover, increased production of corn ethanol, with its relatively insignificant advantage over fossil fuels will do little to reduce China's pollution problems or halt global warming.  China is not alone in this dilemma.  India faces similar problems with its goal of producing more ethanol from sugar cane, which, in India, also requires irrigation.

Whether biofuels, or agrofuels as some prefer to call them, will become a permanent source of world energy production or are merely a stopgap measure soon to be replaced by plug-in cars and hydrogen fuel cells, is, I think, yet to be seen. What I hope is clear is that whatever one's opinion of biofuels, making ethanol from corn is by far our worst option.

Production of corn ethanol does next to nothing to fight global warming, but it will increases surface and ground water pollution, coastal dead zones and soil erosion in addition to further straining the world's already overburdened supplies of freshwater. By committing vast resources to corn ethanol we add one more link to a chain of bad decisions stretching bad to Fritz Haber. We would be far wiser to cleave that chain once and for all.

So, I get to be first.

I had said:

Welcome to ET, JohnnyRook!  Thank you for making a good connection, good learning.

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.

by metavision on Sat Oct 27th, 2007 at 11:31:37 AM EST
The comment I originally posted said something like:

There's a good book on Fritz Haber and the rise of the (German) chemical industry: The Crime and Punishment of IG Farben by Robert Borkin. You can get a free pdf copy by going to this link and going through a couple of hoops.

Maize (corn) took off in the postwar years thanks to both nitro-fertiliser and hybridisation, which doubled yields. Now Monsanto et al are selling the prospect of a new leap in yields with GM maize.

As a higher-energy cereal than wheat or barley, maize also played an essential part in the rise of factory farming (intensive chicken, pork etc production).

See also Colman's diary Socratic Biofuels, and this comment by DeAnander:


and because the preponderance of "food" crops grown by agribiz are already feedstock for the industrial processes that create the industrial fodder loosely called "food" by those who have never tasted the real thing.  as Pollan documents, the cracking plants already in place for processing maize into all its fractions are as massive, as technomanagerially centralised and energy-intensive as any fuel ethanol or oil production process.  turning plants into industrial swill is what the "food" sector knows how to do best, they are already geared up for it...  and the energy crunch comes at a time when the ultraprocessed factory food is losing ground, an inch at a time, to more wholesome dietary options...  threatening to render the whole top-heavy profit-taking monopoly system obsolete.  what's not to like (from the ADM/GM pov) about diversifying or lifeboating into cracking industrial corn and soy into automobile fuel?  it's so similar to what they already do, there's little to no retooling -- least of all retooling of their conceptual armamentarium -- the real problem.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sat Oct 27th, 2007 at 11:33:26 AM EST
That would be Joseph Borkin, not Robert.

Hit self-delete.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sat Oct 27th, 2007 at 12:55:36 PM EST
[ Parent ]

One reason corn is used is that it really is cheaper to convert the starch and sugars in corn to EtOH, CO2 and byproducts with most of the nutritional value (either dried as DDGS or wet as WDGS) than it is to use cellulose crops. Most cost estimates for cellulose conversion put production prices at near $4.50 to $5/gallon, even when the feedstock is about <2 c/lb, or $40/ton. And even though the cellulose plants use less non-renewable energy (then tend to burn the lignin and other "non-digestables" in cellulosic plants to power up the production facility), unit US wholesale gasoline prices are going to have to be more than $5/gallon and likely to stay that way, liquid fuels from cellulose are just going to be a R&D curiosity. And even if EtOH in bulk was to retail for more than $4/gallon (currently it is less than $2/gallon), it would still be a lot more profitable to make EtOH from corn.

Right now, the production processes are still tied to relatively cheap natural gas or even really cheap coal as the source of both the thermal energy and the electricity (along with some ancient subsidized nukes). The electricity used in these facilities could easily be made with wind turbines from nearby/regional farms. In fact, there is so much potential wind energy in the US midwest (where 8 m/s is a quite common hub height average wind speed, and where utilities are still insisting on buying wind derived electricity for less than 4 c/kw-hr), that the by-product CO2 could be reduced with H2 made by electrolyzing water with wind derived electricity into products like EtOH, Methanol, Butanols, synthetic hydrocarbons via Fischer-Tropsch approaches, or even methane) on mass scale and still barely tickle the wind energy potential of the Great Plains.

However, the midwest is also cursed with mass quantities of lignite, and that keeps electricity prices on the wholesale level near the 3 to 4 c/kw-hr level. Until higher prices for the likes of electricity, gasoline and natural gas are arranged (willingly or otherwise), things will keep proceeding like they are. Farmers will view EtOH as their friend because it keeps corn prices at levels that make farming a profitable venture. Otherwise, much of the U.S.'s farmland in the midwest will get abandoned, since nothing profitable can get grown on them with dirt cheap commodity food prices.

There are several ways that the efficiency of EtOH plants could be doubled or quadrupled, in terms of EtOH out per non-renewable energy input. But until natural gas and coal usage pay their real cost (including their foreign import costs/greenhouse gas pollution costs), not much will change. Except that next year more wheat will get grown. But at least we don't have to worry about H2 fuel cells for cars - also a very inefficient way to go - better to just use batteries and stay away from the H2 pipedream. After all, if H2 is made, it's probably better to convert it into something useful and storable, like ammonia, methane and liquid fuels derived from hydrogenating CO2. Thanks to EtOH production, there is a lot of high grade CO2 around, and no one to buy it.


by nb41 on Sat Oct 27th, 2007 at 02:42:53 PM EST
The text above was written by JohnnyRook, not by me (see my note at the beginning). But here are a couple of thoughts after reading your comment.

Second-generation (cellulosic) biofuels are not necessarily the answer to anything, imo, but I'm not sure hard and fast comparisons can be made at this stage in their R&D. They may well turn out to be too costly to be brought on stream. They do present the possibility of being less environmentally damaging than maize (corn) and of using marginal land, not prime arable. That's as much as I'd say for them.

Reasoning on prices is difficult anyway, because there are open and hidden subsidies involved. As you rightly point out, coal and natgas don't pay their real costs and thus benefit from hidden subsidies. But ethanol from food crops is directly subsidised too, both in the US and the EU. This appears to hit the agro-industry's hunger spot just as other forms of subsidy (export subsidies notably) are on the way down. One of its effects is to tauten world grain markets (along with other factors like poor world wheat harvests over the last few years, and of course rising demand).

Finally, you're saying it's about maintaining farming in the Middle West, because either it's corn for ethanol or it's no farming at all. The only way that can work is by heavy and rising subsidy, because the competition from tropical regions (ethanol from sugar cane, palm oil for diesel) will be too strong. Sugar cane produces almost twice the ethanol yield per unit of land surface as corn. And this brings us to the questions of how much surface would be needed to include a significant proportion of agrofuel in our massive consumption of liquid petrofuels (our calculations here indicate that the EU doesn't have the arable surface to reach its own biofuel targets without drastically reducing or even forgoing food production, and will therefore massively import sugar-cane ethanol and palm oil), and of the environmental degradation caused by the type of agriculture concerned (maize monoculture, rainforest depletion).

I appreciate that you present other possible spin-offs, but these seem hypothetical for the moment (but IANAChemist).

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sun Oct 28th, 2007 at 06:38:19 AM EST
[ Parent ]
... tropical sugar cane and oil palm plantations producing ethanol and biodiesel is straightforward ... don't import it.

If a nation is importing biodiesel, it is not living on on its own biocapacity, but rather on the biocapacity of others, and therefore its technological standard of living is not suitable for replication worldwide, by simple arithmetic.

It may be in place as an exercise in pure political pork, but the US tariff on ethanol imports is one of the few actual elements of a sustainable biomass energy policy that is already in place.

I was not actually aware of claims that the break-even for cellulosic ethanol is presently in the range of $5 to $6/barrel, but if so, that provides some substantial support for the optimism expressed by its proponents. At the moment, we are in the early stages of development of second generation cellulosic ethanol production, with low-heat enzymatic break-down of cellulose reaching pilot plant stage and biological breakdown still at the research stage.

If, given that, financial break-even is in the lower end of the price range for gasoline over the Teens, it would seem to make sense to get policies underway that build up the supply of feedstocks.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sun Oct 28th, 2007 at 03:10:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
In the U.S, for better or for worse, there are hefty import duties on imported EtOH and sugar. Thus, it is not cheaper to import sugar cane derived EtOH into the U.S., or import the sugar and then convert it to EtOH. Besides, at $90/bbl for crude, and the equivalent of more than $3/gallon for gasoline, it probably makes more sense to replace gasoline in the tropical countries with home-grown fuel that make either sugar from cane or EtOH from cane. And besides, all their EtOH will not be able to satiate the U.S. lust and addiction to cheap liquid fuels.

Anyway, as nat gas prices rise to equillibrate to the thermal price of diesel/fuel oils (which would be a nat gas price of close $18/MBtu right now), it is going to get really expensive to use gas to run EtOH plants. One easy approach is to take a portion of the by-product (wet distillers grains with solids, alias WDGS) and anaerobically digest it into a mix of CH4, CO2 and fertilizer residue, which substitutes nicely for NH3, and in effect, was derived from the NH3 used to produce the protein part of corn. The methane can then power up the distillations and the drying of any left-over WDGS into DDGS. This approach drastically improves the "renewable" energy return, as it gets rid of the need to buy/use fossil fuel derived CH4, and to use much of the NH3 needed to grow corn.

However, these changes, and assorted other ones, are not going to happen until natural gas stops being $7/MBtu and starts getting priced more like $20/MBtu. It will also help when gasoline is above the $4 to $5/gallon range, which means that the EtOH will be in the $3 to $4/gallon range - very profitable (right now it's $1.76/gallon in bulk, and still profitable). The EtOH business must get profitable enough so that the capital improvements needed to use some portion of the WDGS to power up the EtOH facility will pay themselves off (or some other means of powering up these facilities is utilized).

Anyway, the other day I was watching a pair of unit trains worth of corn (69 x 100 tons per unit train) get unloaded into a recently revived silo complex. It's one of 80 trainloads or so needed to fill up this complex, mostly originating in a small part of Ohio. Evidently the corn crop was big enough in this part of the country that an additional 8 million bushels needs to get stashed over the winter (only about 224,000 tons) until it gets converted into something....probably EtOH and DDGS. This corn is valued (if that is the term for something of so little value) at about 6.5 c/lb, or around $3.66/bushel. This is a drastic improvement for farmers, and they can actually make a profit on this. The corn doubles in value when converted into EtOH, corn oil and DDGS at current bulk prices. If it was saved and used for food....corn prices would collapse to unsustainable levels near $1.50/bushel, and they would stay that way until the excess was used up and thousands more farms/farmers went out of business. Or millions of overseas farmers, as the U.S. government would dump this onto 3rd world and 4th world countries, as was all the rage a few years ago. Supply destruction, so to speak. There is just too much of this stuff, even when something like 80% of all corn consumed as food/food products in the U.S. is fed to cows, pigs and chickens in this country.

So, not a perfect world, by any means and certainly lots of room for improvement. But taking the carbs out of corn and converting them to EtOH and CO2 makes more sense than feeding it to cows and having them convert the starch in corn into CO2 and CH4 which get emanated out of both ends of the cows. And of course, the EtOH production is still no excuse for not using liquid fuels wisely and efficiently, something the U.S. really sucks at these days, with a pathetic < 20 mpg average car mileage. But in an odd way, the more efficient the country gets with its transportation fuel, the greater the contribution that fuels like EtOH can make.

For example, current U.S. gasoline consumption is something like 9.6 million barrels/day, and EtOH production is about 480,000 bbl/day, or 5% of total car fuel usage. If fuel efficiency were "suddenly" increased to 40 mpg (the more Harleys scenario), even with the same  amount of driving, fuel usage would only be 4.8 mbpd, and the EtOH content of that would be about 10%. Then if lifestyle changes ('burbs to cities, more telecommuting, more mass transit, etc) took place, resulting in only 50% of the miles driven as are now driven, gasoline consumption would be 2.4 mbpd, and EtOH would constitute about 20% of the fuel supply at the current 7.5 billion gallons/yr level. And at 15 billion gallons/yr production, that could be 40% of car fuel consumption.

But, EtOH production won't have much effect on imported oil/oil products if the U.S. does not get efficient with its transportation fuels. And keeping liquid fuels cheap will stop a lot of biofuel production from ever happening. Expensive oil will cause more biofuels production. And crops will be used in preference to cellulose, just because the capital for cellulose facilities is so much greater/productivity so much lower with cellulose as a fuel feedstock. Cellulose derived fuels will be at least twice as expensive to produce as using crops, if crops stay at their current prices. Of course, with gasoline at $8/gallon, that would not be a problem, but crops will be preferred, and a more profitable way to make EtOH, unless they get too expensive, for various reasons.

At present, petroleum prices set EtOH prices, and they are way too low in the U.S. to force such changes. Unfortunately, prices are going to have to move towards Norwegian type levels before these sensible moves start happening. And we can't say that we weren't warned....


by nb41 on Sun Oct 28th, 2007 at 10:58:20 PM EST

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